All The Lonely People, by Martin Edwards

Review published on November 21, 2012.

It’s over twenty years since All The Lonely People first graced the nation’s bookshelves, but now it’s back. Re-released earlier this year by Arcturus, deservedly under the banner of ‘Crime Classics,’ it now has the opportunity to thrill a new generation of crime readers.

All The Lonely People was, and is, the opening salvo in Edwards’ acclaimed Harry Devlin series, which charted the career of a Liverpudlian defence lawyer with more than a whiff of Marlowe about him. Returning home from a day defending the indefensible, Devlin finds his estranged wife Liz waiting in his living room. The theatrical reconciliation of Devlin’s fantasy is not to be though – Liz merely intends to use their former marital home as a safe-house while she escapes her new lover, a violent underworld figure by the name of Mike Coghlan. The best laid plans of mice and men, however, and a day later Liz is found stabbed to death in a dingy alley way.

Very few book titles are as apt as this one’s. Lifted from The Beatles’ own lament to loneliness, ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ the title captures the place and mood of the book perfectly. This is a resolutely Liverpudlian book, but shorn of the cultish parochialism that often comes with Merseyside art. Liverpool is seen not just as a fertile breeding ground for crime, but as a city of solicitors, accountants, suits and even a touch of nouveau-richery. All The Lonely People cuts across social strata, from a landfill-scavenging underclass to the city’s dour but affluent financiers.

This isn’t crime fiction as social comment though. All The Lonely People is, like the song from whence it draws its title, a meditation on the loneliness of existence. Connections between characters are fragile, impermanent, and often founded on untruths. Buddhist scholars would find rich pickings here – all the characters suffer in their own way, either from desiring the unobtainable, desiring earthly pleasures, or desiring not to exist at all. This is a brief book, readable in one sitting, but also more profound than far longer works, making it reminiscent of Jim Sallis.

Unlike Sallis’ work though, All The Lonely People has a thoroughly traditional structure. There is the body, the list of suspects, the host of red herrings, and the dramatic denouement. This is where Chandler meets Christie; Edwards takes a brain-teasing mystery and beds it down in a thoroughly noir-ish atmosphere.

So what of the hero, Harry Devlin? Well, there’s a reason why All The Lonely People is labeled as a classic. Despite being a solicitor by trade, Devlin owes much to his American PI forebears. He is capable of taking a beating, but prefers to exercise brains over brawn. He has an easy way with women, but is not a womaniser. He can draw upon an informal network of sources, and has a difficult relationship with the police, but like Marlowe before him, is more complex than the average shamus. While unpalatable on a practical level, his commitment to defending the guilty marks him out as an idealist, and a champion of justice (at least in the abstract sense). Furthermore, his unfailing devotion to his ex-wife, a woman part Desdemona and part Whore of Babylon, shows us that beneath the world-weary surface is a romantic soul.

Overall, it’s great to see All The Lonely People deservedly tagged as a classic. Pitch perfect on mood, character and place, two decades have only served to increase its power.

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